Category Archives: TV News

When More is Less

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On course to wreck the Spanish economy

In 1530, Francisco Pizarro, the illegitimate son of a Spanish Colonel crossed the Atlantic with a small force of just 180 men.

Two years later, he would overthrow the 500 year old Inca Empire, and rule a population in the millions.

How he did it is the subject of another discussion. This one is about what happened after that.

Pizarro had come to The New World, like Columbus, shamelessly seeking gold. What he found was silver.  More silver than he, or anyone else, could possibly have imagined even existed on earth.  In Upper Peru, at a place called Cerro Rico, he found what was literally a mountain of silver. One of the richest veins of exposed silver on the planet.

The Spanish set to work mining their find, using and killing locals and ultimately importing African slaves for the labor.  They built a city, Potosi there, which at its height had a population of 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world.

When they were done, they transported more than 45,000 tons of pure silver back to Spain.

The Spanish at first thought that they had struck it rich, really rich.  Silver and gold were the measures of wealth, and now silver by the ton was arriving in Seville every week.  It was as though they had won the biggest lottery in the world. And in the beginning, they had.

But as the years wore on, and as the silver supply continued to pour into Spain, the Spanish economy suffered a hitherto entirely unknown phenomenon.  Inflation.

As silver became more and more available, the value of an individual piece of silver began to deteriorate.  It was just less rare, and so of lesser value, because worth and value are to a great extent psychological.  What is the pure value of silver?  Any more than lead? Or brass?  Not really.  What is the value of a diamond?  It is just a stone. But because of rarity, and a kind of mutually agreed value, it has worth. But make it more common and the perceived value drops quickly.

The ironic result of the greatest silver mining adventure in the world was that it pretty much destroyed the Spanish economy – something no one at the time could have conceived of as possible.

All of which brings us to TV news.

In the 1950s and 1960s, television news was difficult to produce.

There were only 3 networks.  With limited air time. And shooting and editing and getting film from Europe or even Washington on the same day was an extremely difficult process.

So TV News was a rare item.

There was not a lot of it.  Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley and whomever ABC had at the moment.

And as a result, TV news had a very high perceived value.

The nation stopped at 7PM when the Nightly News came on.

When Walter Cronkite said he had turned against the War in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson said he knew he had lost the nation.

The value was not so much in the ‘quality’ of the news, but rather in its rarity, hence it’s pcrceived value. Like a diamond or silver, that which is rare is valued.

The advent of cable news, all news, all the time, 24-hours a day, began the process of devaluing the perceived value ofnews.  Now, suddenly, one did not have to wait until 7PM to see the news. One could see it at any time.  It was always there.  So the value of the news began to be debased. Not the quality, per se, but rather the perceived value.

So cable news began to pump the perception. “Breaking news” flashed across the screen with greater and greater frequency. And each time they did that, they also debased the value or the perceived quality of ‘breaking news’.  “This just in” became a punch line, in a kind of national joke.

And now comes video on the web, and a billion people around the world with cameras or blogs or vlogs and citizen journalists.

We are an information culture. We perceive value in being informed.

For us, to a great extent, information is what silver was to the Spanish.  A rare item of great value.

But when we pump our society full of information, all news all the time, we do to our information society what the Spanish did to their silver society – we flood it with the commodity that we consider the most valuable based on its rarity, and in so doing, we change the fundamental equation. We debase the currency itself.

Today, the three television network news shows get fewer viewers on any given night than Walter Cronkite got alone in the 1960s.  And the population is one-third greater.

It is all breaking news all the time, and so it has less perceived value.

It is not a question of ‘quality’, any more than the collapse of the Spanish ‘piece of eight’ or the German Thaler (hence dollar) was based on the quality of the coinage, though there were those who argued this point.  It was that that which is common has lesser perceived value.

Small cameras, the web and cable are our own personal Peru.  They flood our market with ‘news and information’.  There is no turning this off. There is no going back to the days of the rarity of news.

Instead we must decouple our information economy from the flood of content just as western Europe learned, over time, to decouple their economies from silver and gold.

This will not be easy to do, and it will not happen overnight or without a great deal of blood on the floor, or without the fall of a media empire or two.

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Hello Bolly

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She’s the little old lady from Utta Pradesh now…

James MacPherson is the publisher of an online website called Pasadena Now.

Pasadenanow.com is causing a lot of buzz in the journalism community. Not because it’s hyperlocal news. that’s old stuff.  But because MacPherson has announced he is going to outsource the reporting jobs to India.

India.

MacPherson believes that since City Council meetings are streamed on the web already, there is no need for a reporter’s physical presence in the room, and the goings on can be covered just as easily from Bangalore.

Well, maybe

His move has caused such as stir that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has already picked up on the story.

MacPherson’s idea may or may not work, but it gave me a moment to think about the whole notion of outsourcing video production in general.

I am on the board of a wonderful organization called Video Volunteers.

It was founded a few years ago by a graduate of one of my seminars, Jessica Mayberry, and today it is a world leader in empowering people in India with video cameras, laptop edits and the skill sets to tell their own stories in video.

Some of our trainees have now been making video for several years, and are quite good at it. So good, in fact that I think perhaps it is time for them to break out onto the world stage.

It is fine to give out video cameras and teach people to ‘tell their own stories’, but after a while, perhaps it is time for them to start and tell other people’s stories as well. After all, that’s what happens when a crew from Atlanta or New York flies half way around the world to shoot stories in Thailand or Rwanda for ITN or CBS or the BBC.

Well, maybe it is time for our Indian camera crews to get into that business as well.

Of course, in India the median income is an astonishing $115 a month.  That’s one hundred fifteen dollars a month (just in case you thought that was a typo).  So my guess is that our Indian camera crews will be pretty competitive… and quite happy to work long and hard hours and produce a superior product.

At those rates it might just be worth it to fly the crews into the US for work here, in fact.

Bollywood indeed.


The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

First, many thanks to Buck over at b-roll.net. for finding this.  Nice research!

Austin likes to think of itself as ‘different’ from the rest of Texas.

And now, The Austin American-Statesman takes a giant step in moving from a paper to a digital information center.   They not only reprint articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post on a regular basis (hey, this is TEXAS!), but their websites, both the paper’s and their entertainment website, Austin360 are clean and heavy on blogging, video and citizen journalism.

As for their point about local TV news vs. newspapers…..

In my experience most local TV newsrooms start their day by scanning the paper for stories to cover.  I have never seen a newspaper scan local TV news for what to cover that day.

The Man Who Came to Breakfast

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Notice the marmite……

Jeff Jarvis dropped over for breakfast yesterday.

Somewhere between Dubai and Davos, he carved out an hour for a few slices of Sullivan Street Bakery sesame bread and white fish salad.

He came over to talk about DNA2009.

Like Jeff, I attend many conferences. (I can’t turn down an audience).  But one of the greatest flaws I see at a lot of conferences are that once you assemble the great and the good, no one really knows what to do with them.  There is the ‘let’s give a speech’ route. You sit, a famous person we have paid 100k will recite a talk that someone else has written for them, and then we’ll have coffee.  Not great.

Then there is the ‘let’s pretend we’re in a TV studio’ route.  A well-known TV presenter who has little or no knowlege of the topic at hand will carry out a mock Dick Cavett (for those old enough) type TV interview, – lights, swivel chairs, set – all that is lacking is the TV cameras..and the broadcast.  The audience sits and watches this reinactment of a 1975 TV show and then thinks about what is wrong with TV…

Finally there is the much lamented Panel Discussion.  Five or six luminaires on an industry are invited to offer their opinions on a few topics while 300 people watch them try and explain very complex issues in 2 minute soundbites.  Also shows what is wrong with TV.

Well, it’s not easy.

The thing I like about Jarvis is he thinks out of the box all the time.  This goes for his new book, What Would Google Do, which I shamelessly pimp here (my pre-order is already in); but also for conferences.

At his last conference at CUNY, he tried quite hard to break the mold.  Lightning round, solve the problem, live webcasting with comments – he tried to get everyone involved.

So we’ve invited him to DNA (March 4-5, Brussels), where we’re going to try some new ideas on group involvement as opposed to sit and watch this stuff. I think it will make a big difference.

And, using my new flip cam (Jarvis was quick to note that he now has the HD version… so it’s back to B&H Photo as soon as I am done here), we got him to do a quick promo for us. (Well, it’s the least you can expect after bagels and ….. marmite?)

The Word From Down Under

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hopping mad…

Pat Younge, President and GM for The Travel Channel sent me a very interesting article from The Australian.

JOURNALISTS have been warned they cannot be spectators if they are to survive the new world of media fragmentation and digitalisation — an environment dubbed a “perfect storm”.

The impact of new technologies in the world of journalism is a global phenomenon.  More than 12,000 journalists have lost their jobs so far, and I think, we are only at the very beginning.

The report warns that we could see the collapse of the biggest media companies in the US in the very near future. This is disturbing, but certainly believable in light of recent events not just with GM, but also Citigroup.  GE, the parent company for NBC/Universal is apparently in trouble, largely owing to its exposure through GE Capital, but also due to reduced expectations for ad revenues in ’09 due to the global slowdown.  Deep cuts are already predicted at NBC, but that may only be a harbinger of what other US media groups will have to face in the next few months.

As the shakedown continues, and consolidation mounts, those remaining in their cubicles will have to produce even more content for the same amount of pay.  The media business, and in particular, the news business is fundamentally a manufacturing business. We make the product that we sell every day.

Unlike the car companies, we do not have the luxury of reducing inventory – because air time must be filled. Newspapers can cut back on the number of pages they print, reducing their newsprint costs, but they also reduce ad space – and the attractiveness of buying the paper. In the onair and online world, there is almost no cost savings in reducing output – only in cutting the cost of manufacture.

This can be done, but it means fewer people doing more work, and for the same pay.

This is going to happen.

The best thing that those who are in the business now, or contemplating it as a carreer can do is to prepare themselves for a world of vastly higher productivity and far lower per unit costs.  When it comes to axing existing employees, the last to go will the the ones who put the most product on the screen (TV or computer or both) at the lowest possible cost.

Cruel, you bet.

But all too real.

CRASH!

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bye bye SNL… and I have no idea who that guy is…

For the past four years, we have had our offices at 1619 Broadway, where we sublet space from Broadway Video and SNL.  It was an interesting place to work.

Then, on Tuesday, BV called and said that they had sold part of the building and they were consolidating and we had to vacate…. by the end of the month.

Well, with Thanksgiving coming, this did not look like a particularly pleasant prospect.  I like to keep the office close to home and midtown office space is notoriously difficult to find, particularly on short notice.

I was wrong.

The economic downturn has hit harder and faster than I thought.

Within a few hours, we had found a space.  And it was not the kind of space I had thought we would end up in.

Our new address is on 54th and Park.  It is the office of a former hedge fund. Former, in that it was all there, all but the people.

It has a fireplace. And a bathroom with a tub. And wired rooms with desks with Bloomberg terminals and leather furniture. Just no people.  You might call it a fire sale.  “Just take it” said the last person there, who then turned out the lights.

This morning I opened The Guardian to read the headline:

Woolworths, Founded in 1909, 820 Stores, once worth £830m, for sale yesterday for £1
It’s all pretty sobering stuff.
Like 1929 all over again.. maybe.
If there is a silver lining (and it’s pretty well hidden so far), it is that, as The New York Times pondered yesterday, this depression will be different. Instead of the family hanging together on Walton Mountain, it is more likely that people will sit at home in front of their TV sets… or laptops.
That is what you do when you are unemployed.
And that means that the demand for content for TV will at least remain.. to some extent. Some cable operations will no doubt go dark, as advertising dollars evaporate.  But those that stay in business will still have to put product on the air.
But… but… they are going to have far less money to pay for that product. So cost cutting will become paramount. More content for less dollars…
The handwriting, so to speak, is on the wall.
And the inquiries we have gotten so far seem to reflect this quite clearly.
The best course you can take for the coming storm?  Prepare yourself for deep cost cuts.  Those who survive? Those who can deliver content for the lowest possible cost.
And as for the new office?
Well, I will certainly miss some aspects of the old one.
There was nothing like walking a client past lifesize photos of John Belushi or Eddie Murphy on the way to the conference room to instill a sense of confidence.
But now, we can do the roaring fire thing instead.
Goes well with the British accent, I think.

Out of Detroit

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Motown news

When it comes to cutting edge trends, we generally say that California leads and the nation follows.

When it comes to contracting industries, maybe that accolade should go to Detroit.

This week, as automakers made their case for a $25 billion bail-out, one could not help but think that this was but a harbinger of what is going to face every other industry in the very near future.

Newspapers and now local TV are also facing the same kind of financial downturn and pressure, so it might be reasonable to look to Detroit to try and unwind the Media Mess, and therein perhaps, lies an answer or two.

In 1982, there were two newspapers in Detroit.  The Gannett owned Detroit Free Press and the Knight Ridder owned Detroit News.

One was a morning paper, the other and afternoon. One was a broadsheet, the other a tabloid.

Yet both were in trouble.

Detroit, it seemed, could only support one paper.

In those halcyon days long gone, it was thought that it was unhealthy for a city like Detroit to only have one newspaper (today, we are facing the very real prospect of no-newspaper cities).

In any event, to cut operating costs and stave off a perceived journalism disaster, the papers filed for something called a JOA, or Joint Operating Agreement. The papers would henceforth share the same printing plant, the same back office to do the books, and perhaps even the same newsroom.  Economies of scale

Such a sharing arrangement (assuming the principals didn’t inadvertently kill each other), would have been a clear violation of anti-trust laws, and so they needed clearance for the Dept of Justice.

Hence, a JOA.

Today, as newspapers move to the web and video, and TV stations do the same, they are finding themselves increasingly on each other’s turf – in terms of viewers/readers, content and advertisers.  In many cases, there simply is not enough advertiser dollars or viewer/readers to go around. Something has to go.

If we wan to preserve the diversity of opinion that multiple media outlets offer (and that is a debate for another day), perhaps what is needed her is a kind of Media JOA.

Most local TV stations start their news day by reading the local paper. That’s where they get the bulk, if not all, of their stories. When the local paper goes, the local TV news will not be far behind. Mostly because their best source of information has suddenly vanished.

What is killing local TV news (and networks, but more slowly) is its massive overhead. The enormous staffing required (or so it seems) to put the product on the air. (Not to mention building, studios, trucks, tower…)

Why not create then, a kind of media JOA.  A sharing of resources with two distinct and different outlets.

First, as newspapers begin to send their reporters out on the street with video cameras, the local news should use that video for their TV news shows.  Makes sense, no? Why repeat the same act over and over. Cut the costs and share the revenue as well as the content.

Second, share the newsroom. Run the local newscast from the newspaper’s newsroom. Looks like ‘real news’ without having to build a set. Hey, it IS real news. What do you know.

Share advertisers.  Bundle the ads for the paper and the on air play (and the web) all at the same time. One buy helps all, and by the way, you only need one ad sales staff, not two.

Getter a smaller piece of a shrinking pie than no pie at all.